As he battles for the Republican presidential nomination, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is touting a series of measures he pushed that have led to an increase in banned or restricted books — not just in Florida schools, but in a growing number of other states. conservatives.
Last year, Florida became the first of a wave of red states to enact laws that make it easier for parents to challenge books in school libraries that they deem pornographic, inappropriately deal with racial issues or are otherwise inappropriate for children. students.
Books tangled up in Florida regulations include graphic novels about growing up LGBTQ+, a children’s book based on a true story of two male penguins raising a chick in a zoo, and “The Bluest Eye,” a novel by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison which includes descriptions of child sexual abuse. Certain books that address racial topics have also been pulled from library shelves, sometimes temporarily, while school administrators try to assess what material is allowed under the new rules.
The day before DeSantis entered the presidential race earlier this week, a K-8 school in Miami-Dade County placed Amanda Gorman’s poem “The Hill We Climb” on a shortlist for elementary school students after a parent complained. The reasons for the objection to the poem, which Gorman read during President Joe Biden’s inauguration, were unclear. The book version remains available to high school students, but Gorman criticized the decision to restrict it to the newer grades, saying it robs “kids of the chance to find their voices in literature”.
While efforts to ban books or censor educational material have cropped up sporadically over the years, critics and supporters alike credit DeSantis with inspiring a new wave of legislation in other conservative states to regulate the books available in schools — and sometimes even libraries. public. The number of attempts to ban or restrict books in the United States last year was the highest in the 20 years the American Library Association has been tracking such efforts.
EveryLibrary, a national policy action committee, said it is tracking at least 121 different proposals introduced in state legislatures this year targeting libraries, librarians, educators and access to materials. The group said 39 of those proposals would allow criminal prosecution.
“He’s really paving the way,” said Tiffany Justice, co-founder of the Florida-based conservative parenting group Moms for Liberty, whose members have filed book challenges at libraries in several states. “What Ron DeSantis does that I find effective is he uses every lever of power to make long-term change happen.”
“Other governors,” said Justice, “are taking notice and following suit.”
In Arkansas, Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed a bill, which will take effect this summer, that could impose criminal penalties on librarians who knowingly provide “harmful” materials to minors. The law would also establish a process for the public to challenge the materials and ask that they be moved to a section that minors cannot access.
“It’s a wicked world when it comes to trying to criminalize librarians,” said Nate Coulter, executive director of the Central Arkansas Library System in Little Rock, which is expected to sue Arkansas law.
In Indiana, school libraries will be required by July 1 to publicly release a list of books they offer and provide a complaints process for community members under a law that Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb signed this month. In Texas, a bill creating new standards for banning books in schools that the government considers too explicit has been sent to the desk of Republican Governor Greg Abbott.
In Oklahoma, the state school board passed new rules banning “pornographic materials and sexualized content” in school libraries and allowing parents to file formal complaints. The rules still need to be approved by Republican Governor Kevin Stitt.
DeSantis insists that the books aren’t actually being “banned” in his state’s schools, preferring instead to call the forced removal of some books “curated choices consistent with state standards.”
“There hasn’t been a single book banned in the state of Florida,” DeSantis said during a live Twitter appearance on Wednesday when he announced his campaign. He later said that “our mantra in Florida is education, not indoctrination.”
Librarians, free speech advocates and some parents and educators say the push is driven by a small conservative minority who happen to have enormous influence in Republican primaries, like the one DeSantis is running in now.
“This is all part of his plan to run for president, and he believes that his defamation of books and what is happening in the public schools is his path to the presidency,” said Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association, the main union of state teachers. .
Kasey Meehan, who directs the Freedom to Read program at the writers’ organization PEN America, said that when books are targeted in Florida, they later become the subject of complaints filed by parents in other states.
“It’s something that continues to cause alarm for individuals who advocate for freedom of reading or the diversity of knowledge, ideas and books available to students across the country,” Meehan said.
Earlier this month, PEN sued the Escambia, Florida, school district for the removal of 10 books, including “The Bluest Eye” and “Lucky,” a bestselling memoir by Alice Sebold about her rape when she was a child. 18 years.
There have been challenges to the books in schools for decades – “The Bluest Eye” was targeted in several states for years, long before DeSantis became governor. But restrictions accelerated in Florida after DeSantis signed bills last year banning discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity from kindergarten through third grade classrooms, a ban that has since expanded to 12th grade. series. He also created a mechanism for parents to challenge books in school libraries and is targeting the way race is taught in Florida schools.
Many teachers and districts complain that the law’s standards are so vague that they don’t know which books could put them at legal risk.
Michael Woods, a special education teacher in Palm Beach, said new rules requiring him to catalog books in his classroom led him to empty a small library he had set up where students could choose to read something that interested them. Now those volumes are stored in a box he hid in his closet for fear of getting into trouble.
“That kind of positive connection to reading is no longer there,” he said.
Individual challenges to books can come from a very narrow segment of the population, according to PEN and the American Library Association, which tracks book recall requests. The library association said 40% of all applications challenged 100 or more books at a time.
Raegan Miller of Florida Freedom to Read, a group that fights against book restrictions, said he’s talked about educational issues with other parents of all political persuasions for years, and no one has ever complained about inappropriate material in their children’s schools. She claims the issue was raised by a small group of conservative activists.
“Do you really think we are all just leaving our children in Marxist doctrine and pornography?” Miller said. “You only hear that stuff at school board meetings.”
Moms for Liberty, which has 285 chapters, has a strong presence in school board meetings in the state and across the country. He has also successfully supported several school board candidates.
Justice, co-founder of the group, notes that the books are still available in public libraries and book stores. The question, she said, is whether it is appropriate for taxpayer-funded schools to provide these children with children.
Some books don’t belong in certain environments, she said: “A seminary library would have different books than a medical school library.”
It is local elected officials, she added, who must determine what is appropriate.
“This is representative government,” Justice said.
Associated Press writers Sean Murphy in Oklahoma City and Arleigh Rodgers in Indianapolis contributed to this report.